Imagine a world where the Pittsburgh Steelers pull for the Cleveland Browns.
Or the Chargers smear on the silver-and-black face paint in solidarity with the Oakland Raiders.
A place where the Rams root for Minnesota, and the Philadelphia Eagles link arms with the Chicago Bears.
Rest assured that everyone has their own interests at heart. It’s just that with one Sunday of regular-season games remaining, the NFL playoff picture is finally coming into sharp focus, and that has created some unexpected allegiances.
Take the Steelers, for instance. After their loss to New Orleans on Sunday, the only ways they can qualify for the postseason are if they beat Cincinnati, and either Cleveland upsets Baltimore, or the Indianapolis-Tennessee game ends in a tie. So the Steelers will be swirling their Terrible Towels for the Browns.
The lone win-and-you’re-in game, Colts at Titans, was moved into the “Sunday Night Football” slot.
The Titans could be without quarterback Marcus Mariota, who left their game Saturday with a stinger late in the first half and was replaced by Blaine Gabbert.
Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said Monday that Mariota’s injury isn’t related to the elbow pain he suffered in the opener against Miami and that lingered with him for weeks.
“The issue is a stinger,” Vrabel said, according to TitansOnline.com. “When you get hit, unfortunately, and tackled to the ground like we’d rather not have our quarterbacks be, sometimes those things happen.”
Vrabel said Mariota would be evaluated Monday “and then we’ll kind of keep moving on towards the end of the week and make sure he can do everything that we ask our quarterbacks to do.”
What about the two Los Angeles teams? The Rams can secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a win at home against San Francisco. The Chargers will have to hit the road as the No. 5 seed unless they win at Denver (likely) and Oakland wins at Kansas City (unlikely). If the Chiefs win or the Chargers lose, the path to the Super Bowl winds through Arrowhead Stadium and not StubHub Center.
As for the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, they’re hoping for the final NFC berth. They need to win at Washington, and for Chicago to win at Minnesota.
“It’s tough to not really control your own destiny,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz told reporters. “But at the same time, if you focus on everything else that’s going on, and then we have a slip-up because we’re not focused on our job, then it’s really not going to matter. We said for a while now that every game is a must-win game.”
The Rams are focused on beating the 49ers, first and foremost. But if Los Angeles were to lose, it could still get the No. 2 seed if the Vikings beat the Bears. Otherwise, Chicago would get that prime seed and the bye — and the Rams certainly don’t want to go back to the Windy City, where they lost earlier this month.
As it stands, only the Saints are assured of a week off. They locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed by beating the Steelers. The other three NFC division winners are the Rams, Bears, and Dallas Cowboys. Seattle has clinched a wild card and Minnesota is holding the second wild-card spot, with the Eagles are hoping for some good fortune.
In the AFC, the most likely seedings are: 1. Kansas City, 2. New England, 3. Houston, 4. Baltimore, 5. Chargers, and 6. Indianapolis or Tennessee. The Steelers would need a minor miracle.
“We made the bed,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ll lay in it.”
Churn, churn, churn
For 29 consecutive seasons, since the 12-team playoff format was put in place in 1990, the NFL has turned over at least 25% of the postseason field from one year to the next.
Five teams that were watching from the couch last year — the Bears, Cowboys, Texans, Seahawks and Chargers — already qualified for the playoffs. That number could grow to as many as seven if the Colts and Ravens qualify on Sunday.
In 15 of the last 16 seasons, at least one team has gone from worst to first in its division from one year to the next. Chicago fills that bill this year, having finished fourth in the NFC North last season, and Houston could join the Bears in that bottom-to-top category if it clinches the AFC South in its finale.
The Rams’ Aaron Donald had three sacks against Arizona on Sunday to push his season total to 19½, a franchise record (since the league began keeping sack statistics in 1982).
The NFL single-season sack record of 22½ was set by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants in the 2001 season. He set the record with a sack of Green Bay’s Brett Favre, although it was far from a textbook tackle. Favre basically surrendered on the play, dropping down before Strahan could hit him.